By Jeffrey Potter, Director of Communications Programs, Biodiversity Project
These days, marketing is a way of life. Those of us working to protect the Great Lakes and their related habitat need to be strategic in how we compete for our share of the public’s limited attention. This article is designed to be a short primer for developing a grassroots communication strategy. This is by no means the whole story, but with a little research, thoughtful strategy, and an effective message you’ll be on your way. The nine steps that follow will help you develop a more effective communications strategy for your group.
Identify your communications goals and target audiences: Begin with your goals: Are you trying to stop development or change a law? Are you hoping to increase your membership or increase participation in local programs and projects? Design your communications with an emphasis on the outcome or goals that you hope to achieve. Likewise, you’ll need to focus on your target audience – and remember, the general public is not a target. Are you trying to reach just a few elected officials, a group of sportsmen, or heads of households that make consumer decisions?
Identify audience values and concerns: Your message should lead with the values and concerns of your target audience and answer the question, “Why should I care about this?”Values are more deeply held beliefs than concerns. Values include: responsibility for self and family, spirituality, and fairness, among other things. Concerns are more personal, such as: preserving hunting traditions, economic security, and personal health. Research will help you focus on your target audience’s values and concerns. If you’re working on issues in the Great Lakes Basin, you can use Biodiversity Project research for free at: http://www.biodiversityproject.org/resourcespublicopinion.htm.
A message is a paragraph, not a slogan: A slogan, like “Only you can prevent forest fires,” is not the same as a message. It doesn’t tell us why we should care about forest fires, the damage they cause, and the way we can actually prevent them. Think of your message as a one minute pitch, a chance to engage a friend or neighbor on the issue. Make sure you give the audience a reason to care about the issue, describe the threat and who is responsible for the problem, and finally, provide a solution or action that gives them hope and is simple, but meaningful.
Use language that speaks to your audience: Be aware of your target audience’s perspective and background. Don’t assume that your audience knows the meaning of words like watershed, Basin, polluted run-off, or biodiversity. If you’re uncertain about some words, test them with your target audience in a focus group (even a few people you call on the phone.)
Be ready with anecdotes: Having a human story that illustrates your message is critical to a communications campaign. As they say, “the best story wins.” Solicit and research stories that will resonate with your target audiences. Finally, be careful to check the facts and make sure that the storytellers are comfortable with you using their tales for your cause.
Use images to help tell the story: If a picture is worth a thousand words, then it pays to be thoughtful about the pictures you choose to illustrate your message. Choose a photo that provokes an emotional response. A single picture may work for your message, or you may want to use two or more photos that show a contrast such as “before and after” images of urban sprawl. Consider images that show your audience enjoying the resource – fishing, camping, hiking, etc.
Use facts, but be specific: Backing up your message with credible facts will deter attacks from opponents. Be certain that your facts are credible and easily grasped by your target audience. Remember, when working with journalists, cite your sources.
Repeat and stick to your message: Once you’ve crafted a strategic message, stick to it! Don’t ever assume that everyone has heard your message. Include it in all of your communications products, from press releases, to the web, to letters to the editor, and even in public presentations. You can vary elements of your issue-specific messages, but you should have one core message and stick to it.
Choose messengers that connect with your audience: As with the other points on this list, consider your target audience when choosing messengers. You’ll want a credible messenger that inspires your target audience to action. Doctors and children can be powerful messengers for a variety of audiences. Of course, an audience of hunters or business people may best be persuaded by other hunters or business people.
If you’re interested in learning more about strategic communications in the Great Lakes region, contact GLAHNF to receive a free copy of the Great Lakes Connecting Communities Communications Toolbox CD-ROM. The disk contains helpful tips, sample documents, images, research and more.